(Over?)population and our urban future

Several of my students still express anxiety about “over”population as part of urbanization. This anxiety is shaped by Paul Ehrlich’s 1968 book, The population bomb. The book has been highly influential ever since it was published more than 40 years ago. This is unfortunate, because it contains a glaring conceptual flaw that demographers have known about since 1929.

In 1929, Warren Thompson published “Population” in the American Journal of Sociology. In this article Thompson describes two demographic transitions:
First Demographic Transition: improvements in public health and hygiene practices drop the death rate. More children survive into adulthood, and the population grows rapidly.
Second Demographic Transition: after one or two generations, families realize that the risk of child mortality has abated, and they tend to have only two children. So the growth-rate of the population levels off.

Britain was the first country to go through both demographic transitions, and the United States had just gone through the Second Transition in the 1920s, just before Thompson published his observations. Meanwhile, as Thompson (1945) and Kingsley Davis (1965) pointed out, other countries began experiencing the two transitions after the “early-industrializers.” Starting in the 1940s, rapid population-growth had shifted to “developing” countries where new health-regimes had dropped the death rate. In the U.S. this First Transition of falling death-rates happened especially in the 1900s and 1910s due to the Progressives and their urban-hygiene movement.

Thompson’s arguments were not secret; “Population” remains a classic in the canon of demographic research. Anyone competent in population-research knew about the two-phase transition in the 1930s–and as Davis’ research shows, they remained aware of it in the mid-1960s. So Ehrlich’s scholarship, in 1968, was at best incompetent.

Were we approaching the “carrying capacity” of the Earth in 1968? Are we now? That depends upon a lot of variables other than the raw number of humans on the planet. The politics of food access plays a greater role in famines, such as the deliberate starvation if Igbo peoples by the Nigerian regime during the Biafra conflict of 1968-1971. Pictures of starving African children were misinterpreted as evidence of Ehrlich’s argument about an ‘absolute’ excess of people in Africa. Is that racist? Well, Africa actually has a startlingly low overall population density: 28 people/square kilometer. In contrast, the population density of France is 119/km2; the U.K. is 259; and the Netherlands is 495 (World Bank, 2011 data). In terms of land area alone, Africa is in fact significantly underpopulated. It has large deserts, yes; but so does the United States (34 ppl/km2) and India (411 ppl/km2). The under-population of Africa today has more to do with diseases that have co-evolved with hominids there for millions of years, and political conflict since the European slave-trade and colonization began 400 years ago. But through Western ignorance about internal (and geopolitical) particulars of the wars in Nigeria, Angola, and the Congo, a public figure such as Ehrlich could continue to imply that there were ‘too many Africans’–an argument with unpleasant connections to the eugenics movement in the United States and Germany from the 1870s to 1945.

But the highly-normative term “overpopulation” is not just used by those who think there are ‘too many colored people.’ The overpopulation-argument has gained a much wider acceptance as a ‘truth.’ The argument is assumed to be ‘self-evident,’ ‘obvious,’ and ‘natural‘ in what Gramsci would call a hegemonic level of dominance. My students at SF State often accept the “overpopulation” argument as a given. Yet most of them are working-class and nonwhite. If Ehrlich’s arguments ever gained traction as enforceable policy, my students would be likely targets of ‘fertility-restriction’ programs implemented by upper-class Americans.

The usefulness of critique: What we see with a little more clarity

One purpose of this blog-post is to debunk the “overpopulation” myth. I will refer my students to this post from now on to save time. But I have a second, very different reason for writing this post as well: I am more concerned about a demographic shrinkage than I am about a continued increase in population. We need to carefully think through the implications of a Third Demographic Transition: the decision by highly-educated families to have fewer children than the previous generation.

In the Third Demographic Transition, women (as individuals or as part of a family) choose to have fewer than two children, on average. The fertility-rate that will maintain a stable population is 2 children per woman, plus the infant/child mortality rate. In the U.S. the mortality rate of children from 0-18 years is about 0.05%, so a fertility-rate of 2.05 would maintain a stable population. But since the 1970s, two things have changed in the U.S.:
1) working-class male wages have flattened since 1973, so women have had to enter the paid workforce to supplement household incomes.
2) women have been getting advanced degrees at a far greater rate. In 2012, 68% of the admissions to SF State were women. Nationwide, the rate is about 55% women in undergraduate programs. Equal pay for equal work is still not protected in the U.S., so the two changes don’t mean that women have achieved equality. But with much higher expectations about how they want to live their lives, many women are very reluctant to take 3 to 10 years out of their career-path to bear and raise young children.

Other factors contribute: marriage is increasingly seen as a middle-class and even upper-middle-class privilege by a growing majority who know they are no longer “middle class” in the 1950s sense of the term. One indication of this change is that almost half of children are born out-of-wedlock in the U.S. today. Ironically, conservative-Americans use the ideology of “family values” as an instrument of political disparagement against liberals. Rather than a punitive bludgeon, we may need to rethink family-support as an agenda of compassion–or at the very least as a series of public policies to salvage our economy in the future.

Which brings me to the problem with the Third Demographic Transition. Our economic system is designed around the assumption of growth. For example, the largest financial asset of most American households is their house. What happens to the value of those houses when a declining population stops bidding on a large fraction of them? If investors risk money with the expectation of a growing market that will return profits on their investments, what happens when Americans start consuming less? For environmental reasons, we need Americans to consume less. I am not disputing the widespread concern over resource-depletion. But what happens when Americans really do start consuming less? The problem is, I don’t think we know how to manage this transition in an economically healthy way. Not only do we lack the theory to shape good economic policy around shrinkage; behind that under-theorization lies the fundamental problem that we have difficulty imagining it.

But we better grasp the economic-policy implications of the Third Demographic Transition pretty soon, because it is upon us. Japan has been struggling with economic stagnation since about 1990, and demographic shrinkage is a major, underlying structural factor. The fertility rate of Japan is less than 1.39, and the median age is 45. Hundreds of thousands of Philipinas have been encouraged to migrate as elder-care workers. Hundreds of thousands of Chinese work in Japan’s western cities (Hiroshima and Nagasaki), and the local governments are considering granting them the right to vote as an inducement to stay. Given the strongly ethnocentric history of Japan, that is a shocking change in policy. And yet economic growth in Japan has been anaemic, even though the same country, with the same structural political economy, succeeded in three decades of astounding economic recovery and growth from 1950-1980.

Japan’s persistent economic difficulties may be a cautionary tale of our near future. Demographically, the U.S. is maintaining its population and relatively young median age only through its relatively welcoming immigration policy. Since the Great Recession of 2008, the total fertility rate (TFR) in the U.S. has dropped to 1.89. Educated white Americans, in particular, and not replacing themselves demographically. The TFR of college-educated white women in 2012 is 1.6 (WSJ, 2013). Economically, the decline in consumption has already begun. BP’s 2013 World Energy Profile marks the fifth year in a row that energy consumption in wealthier (OECD) countries has declined. The decline is not large–only a few percent per year–and it is more than compensated for by growth in consumption in China, India, and Brazil. But what that means, in terms of policy, is that two processes are happening at the same time. The first process of demographic/economic growth is still happening in some parts of the world; however a second pattern of long-term demographic/economic shrinkage has apparently begun in North America, Europe, and Japan. Petroleum companies are still profitable because some countries are “still catching up,” but that only buys us some time before the same transitions affect their economies as well. Education among girls and women worldwide is increasing. Again this is good news, especially in the sense of ethics and justice. But it also means that the human race as a whole is moving not only towards the Second Demographic Transition (stability), but towards the Third: towards planet-wide population decline.

Drops in per capita consumption, and voluntary declines in population, may be exactly what the planet needs in terms of “sustainable development.” Sociologically, it may be a good thing if couples who don’t really want children feel no normative pressure to have children. Overall it may be a very good thing if we learn to live elegantly with less material consumption. In fact, maybe we should push for all these changes. But in that case, we need to figure out how this will work economically. “Recession” implies economic harm, even though it technically means only a shrinkage in production. Can we improve the overall wealth and welfare of Americans (and humans more generally) as both our population and economy shrink? This is one of the most urgent economic questions of our generation.

Beyond alarmism

Once we peel away Ehrlich’s anxiety about the First Demographic Transition, we see a very different problem revealed by the Third Demographic Transition. But I emphasize that it is a problem, not a catastrophe. We do need to figure out a fundamentally different macro-economic model, but not because we teeter on the edge of oblivion. Figuring out how to increase welfare for a decreasing population can be considered a marvelous, even joyous project; not one we must undertake out of fear or threat.

As we reject “overpopulation,” we also need to reconsider the very meaning of a current human population of 7 billion people. It means that parents have committed to bearing and raising all of these living humans. It is one of the most prodigious acts of labor (in all senses of this word) ever performed by the human species. It is a tremendous achievement. It could contribute to a human and environmental disaster if we fail to innovate and change; but then, that is what we can and should do. And that is what we mean by planning. We cannot control the future. We cannot even predict the future. But we can look at some hints and trends, and then apply our juicy brains towards imagining how that future can work.

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